FARGO — Duke Ellington’s 1940 show at Fargo’s Crystal Ballroom has become a legend in jazz circles, but despite a recording of the show winning a Grammy Award and being housed in the Smithsonian Institute, the monumental concert is often overlooked here in town.
A Fargo artist is hoping to change that with a mural he painted to honor the iconic musician and that momentous recording.
Jeff Knight spent about three weeks earlier this summer painting a portrait of the great composer on the west-facing wall of Rhombus Guys in the alley, just steps away from where the Crystal Ballroom was located, on the corner of Broadway and First Avenue South.
“I just thought it was interesting and kind of sad that I’ve spent most of my life growing up here and never heard of it,” Knight says of the hallmark recording, “The Duke 1940: ‘Live from The Crystal Ballroom in Fargo, N.D.”
A place in history
Knight says he’s a casual jazz fan, but as he’s learned more about the legendary Crystal Ballroom show, he’s come to appreciate its place in local history. He even sought out and purchased a vinyl copy of the recording that was released in 1980.
He started thinking of a mural to celebrate that night a few years ago and then stumbled on the spot after a visit to the neighboring Front Street Taproom. Knight tracked down the building’s owner, got permission and was ready to start work when the COVID-19 pandemic shut the project down last year.
After getting a grant from The Arts Partnership, he started up on the project earlier this summer.
“It was a fun job. People who lived and worked around here would stop by and talk or ask questions or thank me for covering up a boring beige wall," he says.
Knight says he still wants to tweak the painting and will add a plaque or note to it to add some historical context. The note will also include the address to https://www.fargomurals.com/, which celebrates the public paintings about town. He has plans to do additional portraits of artists with strong Fargo-Moorhead ties, like Peggy Lee, Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan.
Symbols on the wall
The Ellington painting features the great musician at his piano, but also includes a number of Easter egg icons. Stars scatter throughout the painting, symbolizing the first time the group played “Stardust” live. A Grammy trophy is for the recording’s significance, and a record serves as a nod to how the concert was recorded straight to vinyl. The hat was part of Ellington’s signature style.
The Pullman car of a train at the top symbolizes how the band arrived, but also how they were treated as Black people in the 1940s. Knight says one story is that the musicians had to use the car, parked at the depot that's now the Great Northern Bicycle Co., as their dressing room. They also had to carry their instruments five blocks south to the Crystal Ballroom in a cold, wet, heavy snow.
A record in time
By all accounts, the group seemed tired as they arrived and Ellington was dismissive of 20-somethings Jack Towers and Richard Burris when they asked if they could record the show as the lineup featured some new horn players. Still, he allowed it — and the crowd of about 700 loved it. The band reportedly gathered around after the nearly three-hour show to listen back to the performance and were impressed by the sound quality.
Towers and Burris gave copies to the musicians but vowed never to release the recordings, though they also gifted copies to friends.
Nonetheless, bootleg copies circulated and became treasured in jazz circles. After Ellington died in 1974, his family decided to release the recordings. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Big Band in 1980, and a friend and scholar of Ellington’s has said, “There are few live recordings (of Ellington) any better than this.”
The obscured legacy of the recording mirrors the location of Knight’s mural, tucked away in an alley, visible only to the west.
“I’d really love it to be in a prominent place, but I also like it being as close to the (Crystal Ballroom) site as you can get,” he says. “Having something bright and new to see at the end of the block is kind of fun. It’s fun for people to investigate. It gives people that impetus to search out what the source of Duke Ellington is here.”